Work and Days

Some Reflections in the Times of Hysteria


Had anyone said a few months ago that the federal government would step in to provide a trillion dollars to subsidize gasoline—to bring it down to $1.85 a gallon nationwide from prices that were exceeding $4 a gallon—we would have had a national debate. And yet as quietly as the Iraq war cooled down and was ignored, so too we think nothing of the hundreds of billions of dollars saved in reduced energy costs. For the average driver who puts 15,000 miles on his car per year, the annual savings (depending on regional prices, miles per gallon, and the amount and type of miles driven) could reach $1500-2000.

Or contemplate again: What if the Chinese had announced three years ago that in a spirit of good will they would begin buying trillions of US Treasury bond at a .5% interest rather than the 3-5% of the recent past. The result, of course, would be a multi-billion-dollar stimulus for the indebted US economy that would enjoy a temporary reprieve from the cost of its indebtedness. (Remember, in the Carter years T-bills and US bonds were paying out 8-12% and more).

Natural Stimuli

In other words, there are natural stimuli—quite substantial ones—occurring that are lost amid the hysteria of foreclosure. Cheaper energy prices permeate throughout the entire economy from tractor fuel to fertilizers. Cheap foreign capital means renegotiating loans down to near 4% and several hundred dollars per month in savings on one’s mortgage. We are in a recession that has self-remedying qualities rather than justifications for the most radical changes in the economy since the Great Depression.

Haves and sorta have nots

Are we seeing an enormous transference of wealth? Those with capital who lost their stock accounts, and those who sold homes at a loss in some ways subsidized those who walked away from homes and credit card debt, or are renegotiating with the IRS and banks for reduced obligations. The illogical exuberance that resulted in purchase of “things” like televisions, cars, and vacations, financed in some cases by additional second and third (defaulted) mortgages (or 5th and 6th credit cards), was ultimately paid by someone else when the crash occurred—first by the lending agencies themselves, but ultimately (and soon) by the public through higher taxes or decimated retirement accounts, or those average Joes who had securities bundled among real estate debt.

Not Quite a Depression, After all

Another sobering thought. Over 92% of Americans are still at work. Over 90% are still servicing their mortgage debts each month. For these, the “depression” so far doesn’t mean a radical need to reinvent America. They plan to stay in their homes, even if they have negative equity in them; again, loss of equity doesn’t mean catastrophe if they don’t have to sell quickly, refinance, or remodel.

Ditto 401(k)s. If you are retired—terrible. If you are nearing retirement as many of us are—worrisome. But for those under 50, who still put away pre-tax dollars each month, there is a weird sort of solace. I have friends in their 40s who say they won’t pull anything out for a quarter-century, and would prefer to buy stocks and mutual funds now at rock-bottom prices, rather than as was true in 2005 or 2006 at the peak of the market. Quite logical—if the entire market doesn’t go belly up.

Meanwhile, gas, food, cars, houses, and consumer goods fall in price, a tremendous benefit for those still working, and one that translates in a rise in the purchasing power of their incomes.

Postmodern Poverty

And for the less fortunate? Here is southern Fresno County, at ground zero of the illegal immigration explosion, where unemployment reaches 14%, agriculture is in the doldrums and construction and manufacturing fare worse, the depression among the poor is still ambiguous, at least in historical terms.

I went into the local Food 4-Less again the other day, a cut-rate, bulk-buy chain food store. The parking lot was full of late model trucks and cars—not the sort I prefer, but those V-8 monsters, loaded up with high-priced rims, wide tires, custom paint, tinted windows, oversized trailer hitches, the whole American shebang so to speak that tops out at around $40,000. The customers may have been out of work, but I counted nine, just nine, of some 100 (this was a research trip for this blog posting), who did not have one of the following four appurtencies visible—cell phone, Bluetooth, blackberry-like device, I-pod. On the way out of the parking lot, the car radio was blaring with three sorts of ads: get out of credit card debt, get out of mortgage debt, get out of back IRS payments—now! Easy! Little cash upfront! This is not Bleak House as we are led to believe.

We are hurting, but not in 1933 fashion, due both to expanded government entitlements; Chinese-made cheap consumer goods; the fumes of past easy credit; black market, untaxed temporary cash and carry jobs (a vastly underestimated source of enormous income); and a culture that absolves one of the shame of reneging on debt (or perhaps even admires the possibility of a phoenix-like resurgence from loser to winner, and has a grudging admiration for the machinations involved in such rebirth).

I’m not sure this is even the 1979-83 recession where finally we got 10%-plus unemployment, 18% interest, and 12% inflation—a topic I once devoted a book to, Fields Without Dreams. Then I remember seeing Cryolite bags go up 10% every six months. I remember raisin prices going down from $1400 a ton to about $450. I remember vineyard prices falling from $15,000 an acre to $3500. I remember taking out Federal Land Bank loans at 13%, and short-term Bank of America crop loans at 15%. And I remember pickers getting 22 cents a grape tray in 1980—and 11 cents in 1983. I bought a used Pontiac Grand Prix (a fixer-upper that had been totaled) for 12% interest. So, I am sorry. This is not quite yet the early eighties recession, and I am not yet convinced that the baby-boomer generation that has come of age cannot ride this out without adopting European-socialism as a cure.

Thoughts on a Wrecked State

Meanwhile a popular parlor game out here is to argue over what caused California’s mess—an inept Terminator as governor; a wacky state legislature that is the dividend of insanely gerry-mandered districts; refined, out of touch elite environmentalists who sued and blocked everything from agriculture and forestry to oil, natural gas, and nuclear energy production?

Or was it the murderous tax code that, to pay for income redistribution, demands the highest sales and income taxes in the nation, and drives out the best and brightest, while welcoming in the high-school dropout and eighth-grade graduate?

Or was the problem state regulations that make it almost impossible to run profitably a small business in compliance with rules that no one can fathom, and which seem designed only to employ more unproductive state bureaucrats?

Or was it the 4-million plus illegal immigrants who over a span of some 30 years, on average per capita will draw well over $50,000 more in entailments than they contribute in taxes?

Or was the rub a powerful state employee bloc, one that consistently demanded raises not tied to performance, but often well over the rate of inflation? (Indeed, many making over $100,000 got raises this year while the state remains nearly $40 billion in debt).

Or was it the out-of-control unionized, overcrowded prison system, that, after hundreds of law-suits and hundreds of millions in court costs, elevated incarceration into some utopian enterprise?

Or was it, to be candid, the screwed-up, shared California mentality, that wants everything now and in perfection, but has not a clue how to pay for it, or a care about the nebulous distant, but evil “they” who are to provide for it. (And a growing state work force that votes for its own excess, since it rarely sees any more the entrepreneur who once paid for it [and is on his way to Idaho or Nevada]).

I don’t know the precise calculus of failure.

Cry the Beloved State

But I do suggest that one culprit was the state proposition system, our bi-yearly experiment in direct democracy in which for the last three decades we voted in all sorts of unfunded mandates, bonds, borrowing schemes and environmental prohibitions about this and that. And we did all this in a state whose high schools in many regions are only graduating 60% of their students. And of those who do graduate and go to college at the popular state college system, 50% must first take remedial math and English classes.

A half-educated, or indeed illiterate, electorate at the polls, voting for instantaneous entitlement, is, as thinkers as diverse as Aristophanes and Alexis de Tocqueville warn us, a rather dangerous thing indeed. And so it is as we see in our late, great California

We should have a Dantesque sign on freeway 80 as you enter the State:

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”